See-through Society – transparency

Cleaning Up

Chuka Umuna, the Shadow Business Secretary, recently called for companies in the UK to declare their tax payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This followed the widely reported, bad publicity surrounding the minimal tax payments made in the UK by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and many others. Whilst not wishing to name and shame, he believes that all companies should glory in the tax they pay. Justin King, head of Sainsbury’s, one of the big four food retailers in the UK, made a similar statement, suggesting that consumers could make change happen through their custom. International Corporations have been cleaning up by transferring their tax liabilities to low tax regimes and tax havens – they can virtually choose where to pay tax.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, states in his most recent letter to LibDem members: “The idea of combining a strong economy with a fair and transparent society is something that will also be seen in an international context this year when we host the G8 in Northern Ireland.”

Transparency is becoming the mantra of the well-meaning in society and many would say “about time, too”. While not the answer to all of societies’ ills, it is a precursor to re-directing society towards solving some of the greatest problems we have – because transparency of key information allows people (civil society) to make informed decisions – either on their own (through the marketplace) or through their government.

Sweeping away the leaves

For years, organisations like Transparency International have campaigned for dramatic improvements in the way governments, publicly owned organisations and companies provide important information. The danger with secrecy (and the UK remains a very secretive country) is that beneath the opacity of information lie secrets that those with vested interests wish to keep hidden. Whilst secrecy is always claimed by Governments to benefit all of us where they wish to enforce it, the evidence is usually to the contrary. The benefits of secrecy accrue to vested interests and results in economic mismanagement at best – at worst, in countries which are, for example, resource-rich and economically poor, it leads to mass corruption, impoverishment of the mass of people, illness and suffering.

Economics and economies thrive on the open availability of good information and only monopolies thrive on secrecy. It is only when information is made available that proper judgments can be made by the mass of participants in the marketplace.  In a world population of billions, markets can only work where information is not controlled from the top down. Stockmarkets and financial markets depend on the freest possible flow of information to the widest audience and there has been a progressive move towards freer access to information along with the spread of technology that enables it to be used. The driving force is the same human one that drives freedom and democracy. There is an inherent motor behind individual freedom and the right to self-govern and the same motor drives transparency because it is with transparency that the potential can be seen and with transparency that informed decisions can be made.

Transparency is not closing your eyes when the wind blows

In the UK, a nation that always appears to be governed by a conservative mindset where change is difficult, where the Official Secrets Act dominates, where GCHQ and CCTV appear ubiquitous, where the challenge to maintain a fairness between an open society and a society that bears down on terrorism often seems so far weighed in the latter’s direction, the motor for transparency often seems to be running in neutral. Conservatism (especially in England) means keeping things the same and with direction from the centre. This often means that vested interests operating from the centre or with the centre will disallow the move towards more openness. The Labour government provided a Freedom of Information Act, for example, to the chagrin of its then leader, Tony Blair., who was and remains a centrist. In a sense the provision of the Act was odd, because Labour remains as much a centrist party as the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the human motor for more transparency was stronger than the urge to opacity in this case – even if the Act is not itself allowing the freedoms desired.

Yet, it was a step towards a more open society and towards transparency that many countries would relish. A free press (the subject of so much discussion following and before Leveson) has helped to unearth the secrecy in banking, for example, that has plagued the UK for centuries. Manipulation of LIBOR, money laundering, sub-prime casino banking and support for tax havens may have helped to make London a key banking centre but it did not insulate the UK from the collapse in 2007 – it made it far worse – and “only when the tide goes out do you discover who was swimming naked” (Warren Buffet commenting on naked transparency). Sometimes, opening our eyes hurts.

Nothing to Hide?

One example of eye strain concerns the opacity of the banks and their cozy relationship with Government (not just in the UK). The secrecy allied to the special relationship has hindered the UK to an intolerable degree. Under Nigel Lawson (one of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors) the post-manufacturing society was hailed as the future as banks gained more freedoms and we all kept our eyes closed. Yet, we now see Germany as Europe’s economic motor because of its manufacturing prowess and the revitalization of the British motor industry (although hardly any it owned by Brits) is now lauded much louder than our “success” in financial services. The illusion of banking remains, though – as a key driver of the economy rather than what it really is – a provider of services that should assist the real economy. And the illusion has been propped up by a lack of real transparency which enables banking to remain a secret society.

Transparency is the ability to be strong enough to reveal information because there is nothing to hide. The true strength of transparency is the confidence that it portrays. So, the opportunity for companies and Governments to be open, to be transparent, only exists where there is not much to hide. Clearly, international companies that are paying virtually no corporation tax on sizeable UK earnings have something to hide; clearly, those (companies and individuals) who put money into offshore tax havens or to secrecy jurisdictions may have something to hide.

If banks and individuals had nothing to hide, Wegelin, the oldest Swiss bank, which is closing as a result of its plan to take on all the clients of Swiss banks that had decided to be more transparent with the US authorities over tax evasion would still be open for business. Their clients, who wished anonymity, made their way to Wegelin – which had been founded in 1741. They knew they were doing wrong and Wegelin knew the same – and the bank is closing after a hefty fine from US regulators and after 271 years. Secrecy was in the bank’s DNA – it could not evolve to the realities just beginning to dawn in the 21st Century. It became extinct.

So, lack of transparency in a world with eyes opening can be also hurt and be expensive and the US executive is now proving to be vigilant on  behalf of transparency on a world-wide basis – as is the US Congress which passed legislation in 2010 called Dodd-Frank. Part of this related to section 1504 which requires extractive industry companies registered with the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) to disclose their revenues and taxes paid on a country by country basis worldwide. This includes all companies registered on the NYSE no matter where they are based. The EU looks to be following this example so that the people of resource-rich, economically poor countries will know how much money their precious natural resources raise in annual income and then can follow through what their Governments do with that money.

However, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chambers of Commerce (vested interests if ever there were) are trying to fight back and have initiated a law suit in the US to nullify section 1504

How curious that libertarians fight on behalf of secrecy – the proponents of a free market arguing against a main tenet of economics – free information.

Battle lines are being drawn – the light and the dark.

21st Century Schizoid Man, King Crimson’s take on Spiro Agnew, was written in 1969 but the 21st Century does even now witness such schizoid tendencies characterized by corporate and governmental secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy that typifies the illness. The lack of openness is world-wide and exhibited by the Chinese authorities’ suppression of its Southern Weekly newspaper when an editorial criticizing Chinese leadership was thrown out and one supporting the leadership was superimposed. Anyone reading Martin Jacques book “When China Rules the World” would not be surprised at the suppression. It characterizes the central leadership of this “civilization state” but Jacques argues that we see it too much with western eyes. But, what if we in the West are right and democratic freedom and openness are the motors that drive our human endeavours? What if the Chinese have, for 2,000 years, actually got it wrong. As China grows stronger, the move away from freedom for information will intensify and Chambers of Commerce will battle against laws for transparency that they will argue provides Chinese firms with advantages. This is a battle that has to be fought world-wide.

Our pursuit of progressively greater freedom (whether press freedom, open markets, democracies, freedom of speech) and equality (of race, religion (or non-religion, sex, sexual orientation and more) appears to be the real motor rather than the schizoid tendencies of the centrist control of monopolies, dictators, and vested interests. Transparency is a hugely important base upon which this basic human drive can persist. In a post-2007 world where the risk is that wealth is being driven to the top 1%, the drive for transparency is fundamental.

Politics – the battle lines between citizens and the state

 

Why the party system is breaking down

Communications leads to changes

 

Types of government have changed with changes in communications. When communications was by word of mouth, strong central government through despotic leaders was the norm.

 

With the advent of the printing press, information could be made more available and (certainly in the West) education could be obtained more widely, leading to different forms of government and wider emancipation.

 

Now, with the dramatic communication changes wrought through mobile telephony and the internet, information (of all types, good and bad, intelligent and unintelligent) is made available throughout the world and the strains in our current governing structures are made worse.

 

The Arab Spring erupted for a variety of reasons but spread through new communication devices and systems. The organization of mass campaigns becomes easier and the attempts to stifle protests by shutting down websites and demanding changes to other, online capabilities is progressively harder.

 

Is the Party over?

 

Political parties are now finding it tougher to piece together coherent and wide-ranging policies that appeal to more than a small percentage of a nation’s population. In a word of communication possibilities, single-issue lobbying is becoming the norm. Politicians in the west continuously argue for choice but the choice that is now on offer, between major political parties without a cause (such as labour rights in the early 20th Century) is not welcomed.

 

As wealth increases (as we develop into the Affluent Society of Galbraith – see:   https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-affluent-society-and-social-balance/

 

so do the opportunities to connect with a wide range of issues – be they environmental, health, sport, education, self-help, business, charitable or whatever. The numbers of people that engage with politics becomes less because people are engaging with single issues. Parties rarely have a key message that intoxicates any more and are driven to compromise on a wide range of issues that appeal to no-one in particular. This means that voting may be on single issues or they are watered down to choose a party that is less bad than the others.

 

 

 

 

Greece – democracy’s floundering founder

 

In Greece, so dismally rent by bad government and economic disaster, the situation is playing out. Here, the people cannot elect a majority party to power and are being forced to vote again until they do. The party system is broken in Greece and single-issue politics dominates to the extent that the people have made their choice but the politicians don’t like it and tell them to do it again.

 

This makes a mockery of democracy in the home of democracy – an irony that is surely not lost on anyone but a potential disaster. The problem is that even if the Greek people are forced to make a different decision in a few weeks’ time, there is no guarantee that the result will be accepted by them and the demonstrations will begin again. The parties need to adapt to the will of the people by ensuring that the single-issues are wrapped into an acceptable set of policies that the majority are willing to accept – they should have done this first time around and it speaks volumes about the paucity of leadership in Greece that this has not happened.

 

Centralisation no longer works

 

A problem with the European Community which has been exacerbated by the Euro is that political judgements made after the end of the Second World War are not relevant to the 21st Century. While trading blocks are an economic decision, a political block (aimed at tying Germany into a framework which would prevent it from the belligerence of two world wars and providing Europe with a seat at any political table for many years to come) becomes a heavy weight to bear in a world that is likely to eschew centralization.

 

Vastly improved communications (including air travel) means that real globalization is the norm. Opportunities are now in place for a dramatic de-centralisation of political power in many countries and between them. Even if we need the UN, the WTO and other world-wide organisations, they are based on a 19th Century division based on the nation-state. We witness daily the huge challenges that this brings in places like Sudan or Iraq – nation states drawn by the pencils and rulers of 19th Century European civil servants, where older affiliations strike at the heart of the state philosophy.

 

In developed nations, the struggle is less severe but the economic stresses that are beginning to tear at countries like Greece, Spain (where half of the young people are unemployed), Ireland (the scene of a mass exodus after so many years of its reversal) are leading to a disenfranchisement. Italy, with an unelected government of “technocrats”, is surely not the model for the future – where votes are wasted and bankers rule from the centre.

 

A New Model needed?

 

New Model politics has to take into account the needs of a better-educated and often single-issue motivated people who need politicians that are there for them.

 

The political parties have to show themselves to be free from corruption and independent of being in politics for what they can get out of it.

 

The parties have to work together where needed and confront the problems of the past that means that each party opposes each other.

 

In the UK, this has been shown very clearly when, after a hundred years of parties being set up to oppose others, the Coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats is set upon by many (especially a quixotic press) because they are trying to work together!

 

This is likely to be the norm. It means that coalitions will be the norm. This will be the political “new normal” to go with the new normal posited for our economic future.

 

Single-issues dominate our thinking and generate enthusiasm more than any political party in the developed world. It is only where democracy is new that parties with major and wide-ranging programmes gain real enthusiasm – which is usually dissipated quickly. Elsewhere, massive disenfranchisement is continuous and leads to a dissatisfaction with politics and politicians.

 

Parties are now the vested interests that need to change. We should see a situation where each party’s manifesto shows clearly what they would do together if that is the way it turns out – not be scared of the prospect because it may lose some votes early on. This is a big change but essential as voters’ (citizens’) needs over single issues dominate and they have no way to select a range of issues from those on offer – only a range of parties with massive ranges of policies.

 

In a world of perceived “choice”, the parties need to change to excite and enthuse or we will suffer the continued estrangement of citizens and political parties that will not result well.